Do election debates still work?

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

In the months leading up to the presidential election, it’s easy to get lost in a sea of facts, especially if you’re not a big politics buff. Turn on the TV and you’ll be inundated with a myriad of campaign ads and contradictory media reports. It’s difficult to keep straight which candidate will raise taxes, which candidate has a questionable Senate voting record, and whose plan to limit dependence on foreign oil is most effective.

After months of attacking each other from afar, the two candidates got down and dirty at Sept. 26’s debate. Whether you watched the debate, contemplating which candidate will get your critical young-person vote, or played a drinking game every time the candidates said the word “change,” it’s important to understand what really happened at this first debate — not much.

As a sports commentator for The Tartan, I stand outside the realm of political discourse. But in this debate, I doubt a degree in law would’ve helped you get more out of it than I did. If the organizers of the event had put a TV screen on each podium that played campaign advertisements, rather than the candidates themselves, it would’ve sounded exactly like the two candidates Friday night.

One entertaining spat between Republican nominee John McCain and Democratic nominee Barack Obama centered on earmark spending, which McCain mentioned should end as the first step toward shoring up the financial crisis. This is something Obama seems to agree with since, as he pointed out, he has disallowed all earmark spending during his campaign. McCain, however, questioned Obama’s passion for the cause by pointing to his past support of pork barrel legislation in the Senate. Obama deflected this claim by noting that McCain supported tax cuts for the wealthy, which would drain much more money from the budget than earmark spending does. Despite moderator Jim Lehrer’s unsuccessful attempt to change the debate topic, this back-and-forth banter continued throughout the debate, resulting in a lack of any real information reaching the viewing public.

Moreover, the means by which each candidate tried to discount the other was downright juvenile. Obama frequently refuted his Republican counterpart’s claims by saying, “That is not true,” or claiming he did not know where McCain was getting his numbers. On the other hand, McCain refused to believe Obama’s ability to interpret quotes made by Henry Kissinger, arguing that he could better interpret Kissinger’s words, having known him for 35 years.

Overall, it seemed each candidate’s form of debate was to continually shift the audience’s attention away from their own faults to those of the other candidate. Viewers got very little in the way of explanations of proposed policies. Due to the inefficiencies of this particular debate in addressing the concerns of the American audience, I wonder if such presidential debates still maintain the power to communicate each candidate’s issues to the American people, and whether further debates will truly serve to clarify distinctions between each candidate.